We are now moving to the specifics of attack with the focus on shomen vs yokomen. Shomen should be an easy attack. Nothing could be more visually clear than a direct overhead attack. However the mechanics deserve a close internal read and we used the sword as that feedback devise. An iaito makes it easier to achieve and hear but even with a bokken one should be able to create a smooth “swish” with each cut.
Achieving the sound isn’t a goal per se but rather is a tool to tell you that your cut is at the proper angle with sufficient acceleration and arc. Really the only way to achieve this is repetition. Correct repetition. Once you learn to do it correctly you can maintain this perishable skill with solo training at home.
We then explored the two basic distances. The first is a strike delivered with the front foot advancing (a slide cut with the power initiated from the back leg) and the second is a step cut with the back leg in movement. The first is a closer range the latter is longer range attack. As a training device the step attack is the basic form only because it is longer range and longer in time allowing for a longer response time. The slide attack is not as frequent because it forces a faster response. At the more advanced level it is important to change up tempo and distance so that advanced students get used to the different proximity and times which have a different visual appearance on feel. With shomen clearly understood and achieved the next distinction to learn is yokomen.
Most of the time yokomen is presented as a pathetically open and oblique attack that has only suicidal combative value. It infuriates me because what should be an eminently effective attack makes our art look inept to a trained fighter. That is not the fault of the art but of its practitioners.
So how should yokomen be delivered? A fast feedback mechanism is to practice tamashigiri – because it is manifestly obvious that the angle of delivery must be sharp to cut effectively. Unarmed it is still possible to learn to attack properly. I had the great benefit of having Shibata sensei as a training partner at a seminar once. Intimidating as that was to begin with, the attack was yokomen and his delivery was fast and much sharper than I had ever experienced before. That made a profound impact on me because it crystallized two challenges: first that the amount of visual distinction between shomen and yokomen is, and should, be small – revealing themselves only at the last moment and with little preemptive cues; second, given the limited distinction, how can there be one set of responses (techniques) to contend with shomen and yet another set for yokomen? The processing time to make a conscious choice isn’t sufficient. It would either have to be instinctively executed (meaning the skill, reactionary and perception speed is unique to the practitioner) or there must be a universal response mechanism (meaning the art has contained within it a logical counter that is effective). While skill is always manifest at an individual proficiency level, the art contains a counter to each delivery. The problem is that to make it easier to understand the art, techniques are still taught in the “if this then that- but if that then this” manner. This may be necessary pedagogy to show a beginner, but that manner of thinking is a structural limitation that must be destroyed to progress. To move beyond the basic we experimented with contending with uke moving between shomen and yokomen. When uke is delivering a proper attack this is a challenging exercise at first. However with proper stimulus nage soon exhibits “correct” responses. I watched students reflexively catching the attacking arm at the tricep (gokyo) and using a “prayer/split entry” response. But gokyo is a “knife” response – why yes it is. Yes, insights into universal responses.
Over the month of March we will continue to explore shomen and yokomen The goals are to ensure a proper and effective attack and to understand the necessary differences in angle and purpose. Another goal is to train with sufficient authenticity that students learn the subtle visual cues and distance games so as not to become flustered by the chaos of contest. Then we can overlay the refinement of techniques and show the connections by destroying distinctions.